It may have been the latest title-clinching in MAAC history, but before the final weekend of play in the MAAC, we can still crown a regular-season champion. Quinnipiac took all of the excitement out of Mercyhurst’s run to the title when the Bobcats dropped a 4-3 decision to American International on Wednesday night, eliminating the second-place Bobcats from the title hunt.
That also translates to the third consecutive league title for the Lakers, overtaking Quinnipiac for most regular-season championships.
“It’s a great credit to all of our players to be the league champion three years in a row,” said head coach Rick Gotkin, whose club was 14-3-1 after the holiday break to catapult to the top of the MAAC. “It says an awful lot about the commitment of hockey players at Mercyhurst.
“This year was a tougher year when you throw in the fact that the league has gotten better and in January we were 12 points behind the league leader.”
The run for this year’s title was not exactly picturesque. In the final month of the season, a combination of injuries, travel schedules and the general appearance that no one wanted to win the league all joined forces to give Mercyhurst the championship with more of a whimper than a bang.
Entering Mercyhurst’s season finale against Canisius on Saturday night, the Lakers are 4-2-0 it their last six, with losses to Sacred Heart and Army in the mix. Three times it appeared that Mercyhurst could control its own destiny to the title, and twice the Lakers dropped games to keep Quinnipiac’s hopes alive.
Quinnipiac, though, played along, posting only two wins in its last five league games entering Sunday against Army. With one month left, Quinnipiac had statistically the easiest schedule remaining, but dropped games against Holy Cross, Connecticut and AIC. The ‘Q’ can be thankful that it garnered home ice in the playoffs as it has not won a road game since a 2-1 overtime victory at Iona on January 10.
Gotkin sympathizes with Quinnipiac’s road struggles. The Erie, Pa.,-based Lakers spend half of each season on the road, and down the stretch this year, Gotkin felt that wear on his team a bit.
“Our travel schedule is tough,” said Gotkin, whose club finished the year 11-9-0 on the road, but an impressive 11-1-0 in MAAC league games. “To be able to go out there and get points, particularly at this time of year when you’re facing teams that have to win for all different reasons, it’s been a big test
“It’s different than it was the last couple of years when we’d clinched the championship with five games left.”
Regardless, Gotkin and the Lakers now have the ability to use Saturday’s game against Canisius as a tune-up game for the playoffs, not a battle for a league championship.
“We haven’t gotten a lot of breaks this year,” said Gotkin. “This is one of the few we’ve gotten to go into Saturday without the pressure of winning a championship.”
When asked if there’s still a little pressure to enter the playoffs on a winning note, Gotkin dispelled that thought.
“We’ve said it for so many years around here that we’re our own barometer,” Gotkin said. “At the end of the Canisius game, we just want to make sure we’ve played well.”
So with another long league season and a third MAAC championship wrapped up, what lies ahead for the Lakers is probably the toughest test. Mercyhurst will play the number-eight seed, which entering the weekend could be Connecticut, Iona, Fairfield or AIC.
According to Gotkin, any of those four teams will be a major test in the MAAC playoff format.
“It’s not so much the team [we play] as much as the way the playoff is set up,” said Gotkin. “It’s exciting to have the one and done thing, but the lower seeds clearly have the advantage.
“Yes, they have to go on the road. But when you get to seventh or eighth [seeds], those are good teams that in a one-game scenario could beat anybody. You have to be good, but you also have to be a little bit lucky in this playoff format.
“We’re guaranteed two games left, the others we have to earn.”
Wise words, as in the playoffs, unlike the regular season, you have to win games to win championships.
ITECH MAAC Hockey League Co-Players of the Week:
Ryan Morton, Quinnipiac Junior, F, Hampden, MA
Morton jumpstarted the Bobcats by figuring in on two goals in a span of less than four minutes in Saturday’s win at Madison Square Garden, helping Quinnipiac win the second annual “Heroes’ Hat.” Morton scored the opener less than two minutes into the game, then set up Matt Froehlich about two minutes later. Morton also assisted on Chris White’s goal later in the contest. Ryan played a role in the Bobcats three-goal rally that ultimately fell short on Friday, netting a power-play goal in the third period.
Mark Murphy, Connecticut Sophomore, D, Jamestown, RI
A defenseman, Murphy scored three goals in UConn’s weekend split with Quinnipiac. He notched two goals in UConn’s win over the Bobcats Friday night, including the game-winner. Murphy also notched a power-play goal in the third period in UConn’s loss to Quinnipiac Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
ITECH MAAC Hockey League Goalie of the Week:
Andy Franck, Mercyhurst Freshman, G, Lakewood, OH
Franck stopped 60 of 63 shots as Mercyhurst topped third-place Holy Cross and fourth-place Bentley. Franck improved his conference record to 16-2-0, his MAAC save percentage to .912 (fourth in the league), and his conference goals against average to 2.63. Franck is 16-5-0 overall. Since January 1, Franck is 14-1-0.
ITECH MAAC Hockey League Rookie of the Week:
Tony Quesada, Holy Cross Freshman, G, South Freeport, ME
Quesada had two impressive performances this past weekend in two big games for the Crusaders, making 50 saves and only allowing two goals. On Friday night, Quesada made 24 saves against first-place Mercyhurst, but it was not enough as HC lost 2-1. The following night, Quesada made 26 stops en route to his second career shutout, 3-0, over Fairfield. Quesada holds a .907 conference save percentage, placing him sixth in the league.
From First to Last
Now that the league champ is decided, the next most exciting race to watch is for the final playoff spot. For the first time since the MAAC decided to eliminate the bottom teams after the regular season, every team is still alive entering the final weekend of the regular season.
Iona, AIC, UConn and Fairfield all have some playoff life left in them. Entering Thursday’s games in Bridgeport, Conn., AIC and Iona are tied with 19 points for the final playoff spot, with UConn two points behind and Fairfield three.
Here’s the remaining schedule for each club:
Iona: 3/6 vs. Connecticut*; 3/8 at Fairfield
AIC: 3/7 at Army
UConn: 3/6 vs. Iona*; 3/6 vs. Sacred Heart
Fairfield: 3/6 vs. Sacred Heart*; 3/8 vs. Iona
(An asterisk denotes a game played at Harbor Yard, which is considered a neutral site).
And thanks to Iona Sports Information Director Brian Breyer, here is every single scenario that could happen with the results.
Iona: Two wins: Clinches. One win (over UConn): Clinches with an AIC loss at Army. One win (over Fairfield): Clinches with an AIC loss at Army. Zero wins: Out of contention (AIC holds tiebreaker over Iona)
AIC: Win at Army: Clinches with one Iona loss (AIC holds tiebreaker over UConn). Loss at Army: Clinches with two Iona losses and one UConn loss.
UConn: Two wins: Clinches with an AIC loss at Army and Iona loss at Fairfield. One win (either team) or zero wins: Out of contention (both AIC and Iona have tiebreaker over UConn).
Fairfield: Two wins: Clinches with two Iona losses, UConn loss vs Sacred Heart, and AIC loss at Army. One win (Iona): Out of contention (UConn or Iona will have more points by default because they play each other). One win (Sacred Heart): Out of contention. Zero wins: Out of contention
Of course, whichever team wins the final spot earns a round-trip ticket to beautiful Erie to play Mercyhurst in the first round of the MAAC playoffs. For some reason that doesn’t seem like the greatest reward.
Who Gets the Hardware?
With one trophy accounted for an heading to Mercyhurst for winning the regular-season title, it’s time to start thinking about who else should take home hardware this year.
Talent in the MAAC this year is a bit strange to say the least. There’s a solid nucleus of excellent players, but (contrary to what I said a few weeks ago in my column) there hasn’t been one player to dominate the league from beginning to end.
It’s very apparent that the MAAC is the home of some excellent goaltenders — ones that if given the chance to play at some of the top-tier Division I schools would have a good chance at capturing the starting job.
There’s also an infusion of some excellent young talent. The rookie team this year is probably the toughest it has been to select in years past.
So here’s my crack judgment on who should take home this year’s hardware. If it follows suit to the past years, likely I’m way off base. But we’ll all find out next Thursday night at the MAAC league banquet at Army.
Brandon Doria, Holy Cross
Martin Paquet, Sacred Heart
Brian Herbert, Quinnipiac
Les Hrapchuk, Sacred Heart
Wade Winkler, Quinnipiac
Eddy Ferhi, Sacred Heart
Greg Kealey, Holy Cross
Matt Craig, Quinnipiac
R.J. Irving, Holy Cross
Matt Erhart, Quinnipiac
Simon St. Pierre, Bentley
Tyler McGregor, Holy Cross
Ryan Mayhew, Bentley
Paul Markarian, Bentley
Ryan Swanson, Iona
Conrad Martin, Mercyhurst
Andy Franck, Mercyhurst
Brad Roberts, Army
Offensive Player of the Year: Doria
Defensive Player of the Year: Winkler
Goaltender of the Year: Ferhi
Rookie of the Year: McGregor
Coach of the Year: Ryan Soderquist, Bentley